On the 3rd July 2011, The Order of Bards Ovates & Druids – in conjunction with The John Michell Network – will be holding the first event in what will become an annual celebration of the work and life of the influential author John Michell. John loved London and to honour the passion he had for his home city, we thought it apt that the first of these events should centre on one of the hidden sacred sites in the London landscape.
The aim of these events will be to not only celebrate the legacy of an extraordinary man but also to recognise that sacred places can be found in the most unlikely of locations; that any landscape can be enchanted and enchanting, even in the heart of a modern city. With this in mind, it is deeply appropriate that the first event should focus on the Crossbones Graveyard.
South of the River Thames – in the area where London Bridge spans the river at the place known as Bankside and the Borough – resides one of London’s most moving tributes to the Ancestors. In medieval times, this area was outside the old City of London’s boundaries and laws. As you crossed the river in to what was known as the ‘Liberty of the Clink’ you entered the underbelly of city life; here were prisons, drinking houses, gambling and prostitution, bear-baiting and all manner of shady pursuits. In this chaotic, colourful and brutal environment, where living was experienced at its most visceral, the British theatre was born.
‘The Liberty’ came under the ruling of the Bishop of Winchester, the ruins of his palace still visible near Southwark Cathedral. The prostitutes of the Liberty, known as ‘Winchester Geese’, were under the Bishop’s licence for 500 years, but in an act of supreme hypocrisy they were denied burial in consecrated ground. The Crossbones Graveyard was where these unfortunate women ended their lives. In its latter years it became a pauper’s burial site, a place of forgotten souls whose lives had often been brutal and short and whose stories had been ignored.
This might have continued to be so but for a twist of fate. During improvements to the Jubilee Line, London Transport dug upon the wasteland that had once – unknown to most – been the graveyard. Their digging immediately unearthed skulls and bones, resulting in a halt of work, enabling Museum of London archaeologists to investigate further.
At around the same time, the playwright, poet and performer John Constable was making his own surprising discoveries with regard to the Crossbones site. Without knowing of its existence, he was drawn one night to this desolate piece of industrial ground by a poetic ‘voice’ in his head. This poem came in an inspired rush. It soon became apparent that the voice of the poem was that of a Winchester Goose, the ‘spirit’ of a Liberty prostitute who had been laid to rest at ‘Crossbones’. It was as if London Transport’s digging had unearthed not merely the bones of the dead but their unheard voices too.
Constable’s research led him to discover that the Crossbones cemetery had indeed existed and was not merely something his imagination had conjured that first night that ‘The Goose’ had introduced herself. Those earlier poems went on to become part of a larger work of modern mystery plays known as the Southwark Mysteries and since then John has become a champion of those ‘despised and rejected’ souls.
John and the Friends of Crossbones hold monthly ceremonies at the gates of this ‘hidden’ ancient graveyard. The gates themselves have become a shrine covered in ribbons, flowers and tokens. As the identities of those interred here have gradually been rediscovered, John ties ribbons with names written upon them; the gates festooned, transforming this rather bleak place into something beautiful. This act of remembrance is incredibly powerful and moving. John understands Crossbones to be a ‘wound of history’ and that the work that he and others are doing at the site is a way of healing that wound, of acknowledging those, who in their lives and deaths, had been treated with such disdain and indifference. He believes that this work of naming and acknowledging the lost and forgotten not only brings peace and healing to those long dead but has a transformative impact on us too.
John’s approach is very near and dear to that of modern Druids. As Druids we understand the importance of honouring the ancestors. We sense that they are the foundation of our being; their days, lived and shed, are the countless layers of fertile psychic soil that we root ourselves within. In Druidry, we aim to respectfully draw from their wisdom and guidance. In remembering those who have gone before, we acknowledge that all existence counts; that each voice, no matter how lowly, has something valuable to add to the ever deepening and unfolding story of life. The Ancestors can enable us to remember who we truly are and, in caring for them, we also begin to learn to care for our descendants. In acknowledging the forgotten ones, we tie the thread of life – the past, present and future – into a circle, a symbol of death and rebirth that makes us one with each other and all creation.
John Constable and the Friends of Crossbones dedication and care illustrates that when we acknowledge the story of those forgotten lives – the struggles, the degradation and the poverty; the heroism and vision of ordinary people who had the odds unfairly stacked against them – we are also acknowledging our common humanity. It teaches us how to treat each other in the here and now – with kindness, respect and care.
Please join us on Sunday 3rd July 2011 at the George Inn – 1.45pm for a 2pm start -77 Borough High Street, London, SE1, the National Trust’s beautiful and historic medieval coaching inn (mentioned in both Dickens and Shakespeare!). There you will hear John Constable – himself a good friend of John Michell – talk about his work with the Crossbones Graveyard, its history and its future. He will also be performing some extacts from his play The Southwark Mysteries. Later in the afternoon, we will join him at the Crossbones site, where he will lead us in a ceremony to honour the Ancestors. The event will finish at 5pm, but the George is open until 11pm!
Tickets for the event cost £15 (£10 concessions) and you can book by clicking here. Spaces are limited, so please book early to avoid disappointment!